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After the disgraceful prelude to the Commonwealth Games 2010, now playing out in Delhi, India's - read Organising Committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi's - wish to host the 2020 Olympics sounds like an outrageous joke. Shall we laugh? Or cry? If our officials and sports authorities have any sense of shame - which I doubt, as nobody so far has apologised for causing our nation such a huge international embarrassment - they shouldn't even think bidding.
Hosting rights are assigned seven years before the actual start of the games, as was the case for the Commonwealth Games, too. It means the host country for the 2020 Olympics will be chosen in 2013, only three years from now. Not even a diehard optimist will believe after its recent showing that India can turn around, rise above its mediocre work ethics and pathetic management culture, become a thorough professional, and acquire the ability to produce credible, quality performance, all in the next three years to convince the Olympic selectors. Our character hasn't changed in 63 years. How will it change in the next three, or seven (for the 2024 games), or even 11 (for 2028)?
So, let's not fool ourselves. We aren't China. We had seven years to prepare for the Commonwealth Games, but still bungled. It only shows how casual was our approach and how substandard is the level at which our public sector operates. There's no need for others to stereotype us. We've stereotyped ourselves.
It exposes something else, too: the utter callousness of our leaders. That's why Urban Development Minister Jaipal Reddy and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit could glibly brush off the footbridge and roof collapse at the main Games stadium as minor glitches. Was that surprising? Not in the least. They were only being faithful to a tradition in which corruption is an accepted fact and mismanagement always has an excuse, where national pride is never a result of national performance.
Look at our roads, cities, public housing, hospitals, or civic amenities, anything that has to do with the government, central or state. Do you see standard, any standard, except Organising Committee General Secretary Lalit Bhanot's? Do you find the minimum honesty of performance that one expects? Anything that can be called neat, well executed, without the ordinary, dishevelled, and unfinished look that public projects in India usually leave behind? You don't, because it's not expected. India is a nation where substandard is the accepted norm.
That, essentially, was what Reddy and Dikshit were telling us: Things go wrong, but things get done, don't they? Why criticise your own nation? Sports Minister M S Gill even cracked a little joke about it. Everything would be fine, Monsoon Wedding-like, he said, referring to the Mira Nair movie's oddly happy ending. He didn't realise it was a sad commentary on India's state of affairs, which will be remembered by the International Olympic Committee.
In the end, the Games got underway all right, like the babus said they would, purely Monsoon Wedding-style, in spite of all the Games Village woes and logistic troubles. But the damage has been done and not even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's last-minute outburst of anger and initiative can undo it. The message has gone out to the world that India has a government system that's utterly inefficient and can't be fully trusted to host major international sporting events with the desired degree of finesse. No amount of patriotic drum-beating can now erase the images of filth and dirt in the ill-finished Games Village, and the broken footbridge at the Nehru Stadium parking lot, etched on the minds of millions of TV viewers around the world. Let's chew on our national pride and our rising economic power, but, in the world's view, India remains a substandard nation.
Can we be wiser after the fact? Can we change? At this point in time, it seems next to impossible. Only a huge uplift of leadership at the top can alter an administration so used to graft and payola, cutting corners, accepting compromises, tolerating incompetence, fighting turf wars, and sleeping on decisions till the last minute. In a country where bureaucratic and political interests mingle and influence each other, any assertion of leadership will be immediately resisted as undemocratic and authoritarian.
Generations of Indians have been raised on substandard public facilities and services, and have come to believe that's the only standard - the Indian standard. Let's stick to it. Let's keep things the way they are and always have been. That way the system will run smoothly and we'll all be happy. Forget the 2020 Olympics, or any Olympics. Why invite unnecessary trouble? Why let others pry into our lives and culture or our hallowed standards of cleanliness? Instead, let's honour Suresh Kalmadi and Lalit Bhanot for being such honest brokers of the genuine Indian tradition!